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World health leaders share updates at Malaria Forum

The Rev. Larry Hollon (second from left), top executive of United Methodist Communications and a spokesman for Nothing But Nets, participates in a panel discussion at the Malaria Forum sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A UMNS photo by Amy DiElsi.  

By Lynne DeMichele*
Oct. 22, 2007 | SEATTLE (UMNS)

United Methodist leaders in the fight against malaria are cautiously optimistic about a newly released report on the safe use of a vaccine that reduces malaria infection among infants in Mozambique.

Bishop Felton E. May, interim chief executive of the Board of Global Ministries, and the Rev. Larry Hollon, who heads United Methodist Communications, issued a joint statement in response to news reports that the vaccine has passed another stage in the long process of testing.

The study, reported in the The Lancet, a British medical journal, showed that a vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKlinePLC and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative was safe for use in infants. It reduced incidents of malaria infection by 65 percent in a group of 214 infants, some of whom received the anti-malaria vaccine and others a vaccine for hepatitis B.

Both May and Hollon noted that, while the test group was small and the study's objective limited to safety questions, the vaccine's "possibilities are encouraging."

Partnering against malaria

Both May and Hollon took part in the Oct. 16-18 Malaria Forum sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, at which worldwide health leaders shared the latest news in the fight against the disease. Hollon was also a panelist in a forum discussion on "Bringing New Partners to the Fight Against Malaria."

The United Methodist Church was the only faith group represented at the Seattle event, which included more than 300 scientists, physicians, public health leaders and top government officials from across the globe.

School children in Lekki, Nigeria, perform a skit promoting the effectiveness of mosquito nets in preventing malaria. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose. 

The church was invited because of its early role in Nothing But Nets, a year-old anti-malaria initiative in Africa, according to Elizabeth McKee Gore, director of Campaign Partnerships and Nothing But Nets of the United Nations Foundation.

The people of The United Methodist Church are a founding partner in the campaign to deliver insecticide-treated sleeping nets to Africa to prevent the spread of the mosquito-borne disease. The church's involvement is part of the denomination's larger commitment to combating diseases of poverty. Other founding partners are the U.N. Foundation, Sports Illustrated magazine and the National Basketball Association. So far, the partnership has raised almost $15 million which, at $10 a net, is enough to buy almost 1.5 million nets.

"The passion and enthusiasm of 13 million United Methodists, along with the (church's) health infrastructure, including 32 African annual conferences, is invaluable in the collaborative effort," said Gore.

Hollon said the unusual collaboration among United Methodists, the U.N. Foundation and various sports entities prompted its presence at this forum. "We have a remarkable connection and the assets to really contribute to global change," he said. "The United Methodist Church brings an infrastructure on the ground. The people of the church can help put an end to the dying that results from malaria."

Joining Hollon on the Oct. 18 panel discussion were Major League Soccer player Diego Gutierrez with the Chicago Fire; Andrea Lewis of Idol Gives Back; and Stephen O'Brien, a member of the British Parliament and chairman of the Malaria Consortium. Gore served as moderator.

"This (forum) illustrates the value of 21st century partnerships. No single group is going to eradicate malaria," Hollon said.

Nothing But Nets is "an unusual partnership for us," said Hollon. "But it captures people's imagination and they're excited about it." He said the church must continue to have a role in training, the delivery of health care, strengthening community health systems in developing nations and expanding public information through community radio outlets.

'Visionary and inspiring'

The Gates Foundation has spent more than $1 billion in the fight against malaria. The Malaria Forum was the first gathering of its kind in the world, bringing together those who can define specific needs in the fight with those who can provide training, vaccines and distribution.

Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates opened the forum by challenging leaders in government, the civic sector, industry and nonprofit organizations to press ahead with the long-term commitment to eradicate malaria.

"Both were visionary and inspiring," said Hollon.

While no single tool exists to wipe out malaria, existing measures like bed nets, insecticides and drugs can drive down the number of cases across Africa and Asia, said Melinda Gates. Then new drugs, vaccines and insecticides can be developed to completely wipe out the disease.

Worldwide, more than 1 million people, mostly children, die of malaria each year — one every 30 seconds. Malaria has long been a problem, particularly in developing nations where warm climate and marginal health conditions foster spread of the disease. Since the 1950s, all attempts to eradicate malaria have failed. However, Melinda Gates said anything less than eradication is "too timid a goal for the age we're in."

"It's a waste of the world's talent, and it's a waste of the world's intelligence, and it's wrong and unfair to the people who are suffering from this disease," she said.

*DeMichele is a freelance writer based in Gig Harbor, Wash.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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